28 Apr 2016

Is Apple on the precipice of going Nokia-wards?

Tim Cook will have woken to the news that Facebook has tripled its advertising revenues.

The news has stunned Wall Street in much the same way that Apple’s revenue-drop news, 24 hours previously, had shocked the media world. The surprise came despite an apparent expectation management exercise, masterminded by mister Cook in January.

Apple soothsayers and naysayers are currently pondering the significance of recent fiscal reports which frame Apple’s fortunes by a 10-million unit drop in iPhone shipments.

In the first analysis it would seem absurd to liken the potentially emerging negative Apple trend to the dystopian destiny of, say Nokia – especially given the Cupertino giant’s cash mountain of $233bn – a little more than Finland’s total GDP.

The reason for the sales slump is widely attributed to the company grappling with the Chinese economy, where the mass market consumer can’t afford a £50 smartphone.

It’s all going to be fine though, according to mister Cook who proclaimed with an Old Testament-like zeal ‘This Too Shall Pass’ – after the company lost over $40 billion in its value.

Flashback to Nokia, it’s 2003 and a 14-strong Nokia account garrison march into a mobile phone operator sales meeting to reveal its worst kept secret, the 18-month product roadmap. It contained the usual kooky Finnish faves: phones that looked like spaceships, phones that aped miss-shaped boxes of chocolates and not one touchscreen phone among them.

When the Espoo troops were asked why they serially resisted the new touchscreen tendency that was showing up in all consumer research across demographics, cultures, ethnicity they dismissed it as a blip. Their research indicated the mobile phone market was still fundamentally about fashion i.e. colour, form, shape – the consumer wanted cameras not touchscreens!

Posturing and denials like this signposted the unravelling of the much-loved Nokia brand. Even though there were short-term heydays ahead, like the launch of the fantastically fast and powerful internet-friendly, N95, Nokia revenues started to decline irretrievably when Steve Jobs heralded the advent of the touchscreen in 2007.

Mediacells’ analysis of the revenue cycle peaks for both Nokia and Apple shows immense growth which, in Nokia’s case at least, culminated in terminal decline in a market where new competitors, like Apple, began to define a new mobile narrative.

Mobile was no longer about fashion and fancy, it was about lifestyle companionship and smartphone behaviours finally evolved to include constant app and internet usage.

The future of the iPhone is to some extent out of Tim Cook’s hands, the strong macro-economic headwinds blowing from the East are impossible for the West, let alone Apple to shield from. But Apple does need to come up with a radical new innovation programme rather than just the current incremental improvements to existing products.

There was a ‘Nokia moment’ when the roadmap rumour started circulating around the iPhone 7. It would include a redesigned home button, proprietary headphone port, and a dust and water-proof jacket. Is this enough for an iPhone 6s customer to upgrade – to change the fundamental way I navigate my iPhone and plug myself into my music even if it will survive a toilet dive?

There’s a step change missing in the Apple product roadmap, somewhere between underwhelming product launches, like the smartwatch, to the Wall Street whispers of life-changing future products, like electric cars and virtual reality hardware.

Facebook, Spotify and YouTube are already delivering content on what some tech pundits and twonks are calling the fourth, even fifth screen. It could be on the dashboard of a car, on a smartwatch, a cooker, a TV or even in a smart shower.

This internet of stuff can’t rely on a piece of hardware – that would make it far too emotional if it were ever to get lost, broken, infected or stolen. Quite literally, the key to our future everyday lives would need to be completely reset.

As Tim Cook promises a product pipeline with ‘amazing innovations in store’, expectations are perhaps being set instead of managed.


15 Apr 2016

Don’t be evil, try telling that to the robots!

It’s 1977. The Goblin Teasmade advert is on television screens, Punk is hitting the UK streets and Clifton Country Primary (CCP) are engaged in the dying embers of a grudge soccer match against arch pre-teen rivals, Mayfield. It’s nil-nil. 

CCP have just brought on a substitute, Steven Roundtree. He’s new to the team and it turns out new to the rules of English football but fresh legs are required. The diminutive Mayfield goalie takes several strides back in a studied run-up to the last goal kick of the game.

Insanely, Roundtree charges towards the spot and rockets the ball into the top right corner of the Mayfield net, before screaming back up the wing, fists pumping, anticipating the schoolboy pats, hugs, plaudits that never come.

I thought of Steven Roundtree when I read about the Racist Robot debacle, this week. If the story hasn’t somehow hit your Facebook-curated news algorithm, it centres around a Microsoft PR techno-wheeze which spectacularly backfired in the megacorp’s face.

The software leviathan was not to know that releasing a machine-learning program, known as ‘Tay’ into the internet wild to ‘improve customer service’ would have the equivalent effect of putting Attila the Hun in charge of the Brexit campaign.

Within hours, a bunch of horrible trolls got hold of the algorithm and poisoned the innocent Tay with nazi invective.

Within hours of letting the new-born bot loose on Twitter, teen-voiced Tay’s timeline was transformed from saccharine-sweet tweets like ‘humans are super cool’ to a more jackboot-stomping cadence, fuelled with anti-social juvenile vitriol such as ‘her’ now infamous tweet, ‘Hitler was right’.

All this on the same day that tech-beat BBC radio journeyman, Rory Cellan-Jones was allowed a segment on the highbrow Today Programme with Siri reading out the news to highlight some esoteric story about how ‘bots’ (wtf, asks Radio 4 listener Missus Lampeter of 1 Acacia Drive, Eastcote) are the new apps.

If the Beeb had waited a few hours, it could have had Tay vomiting out the news in a kind of techno-tourets.

The Meta story here is that most Internet of Things (IoT). No longer a geek boy plaything, IoT is now the cipher for how we will soon do everything, or rather, have everything done for us. It’s like the Goblin Teasmade of the digital age.

Soon, and we’re talking years, machines will undertake all of the drudgery of our daily lives at work and in the home as well as transcending the art of headline writing, language translation and forecasting natural disasters or avoiding terror attacks. Recently, Google’s machine learner Al beat the top player of the ancient and complex game, Go, at the DeepMind Challenge.

So how then, with this super-abundance of intelligence did Microsoft’s Tay get all ‘her’ social sums so wrong and what does this say about the future of a small thing called humanity?

As Steve Hawking says in Wired magazine, “A super intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren’t aligned with ours, we’re in trouble.”

Thought leaders and pioneers of machine learning are of the same voice as Dr Hawking. The prestigious MIT Media Lab appointed a Dalai Lama-grade monk to its Ethics panel, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, philosopher, philanthropist, polymath and all-round virtuous big brain. The artificial intelligence and governance initiative aims to examine ‘meaningfulness and moral purpose’ between individuals, organisations and societies.

The High-Church ‘don’t be evil’ Google aspiration will hopefully pass on its mantra to the internet of things. When neuroboffin Demis Hassabis’s company Deepmind was acquired by Google for $400 million, he reportedly asked the search giant to create an ethics board to oversee its AI research as a condition of its acquisition, which it did, autonomously.

Microsoft’s Tay marauded around the internet for 24 hours before being shut down. Steven Roundtree was allowed a few fist pumps before he was summarily sent to Coventry for throwing the 1977 Inter-Primary School Cup final for CCP. I wonder if he ever learned from that experience. I bet Tay has.


Steven Roundtree is not his real name.


17 Mar 2016

Machine-learner difficulties

Google’s Al might have stuffed the Go champ but youthful instagrammers are sticking it to the machine.

Google’s Al beat the top player of the ancient and complex game, Go, at the DeepMind Challenge, recently. It didn’t so much beat the South Korean champion, Lee Sedol, as wipe the board with him 4 straight wins to 1.

The news has been reported variously as the Fall of the Geek or the Rise of the Machines and there’s been little sympathy for the down-in-the-dumps human, tangled up in it all.

The story has been reported with a fan-boy zeal by Reuters, CNN and the BBC with a mouthwatering message about how machines can learn independently, approximating that ole wives’ favourite, human intuition, by studying  countless historical Go matches and using simulated Go games to perfect an emotionless, unbeatable strategy.

Well, not quite, Lee did beat Al once at least!

It’s significant, according to boffins at Carnegie Mellon University, because of the applications to other areas like health care, scientific research, even the law.

News breaks of Al’s smug victory over a crestfallen ancient board game strategist at the same time that photo share service, Instagram announces it’s going to order our feeds according to a number of dubious machine factors.

The change has come about with the outstanding statistic that instagrammers miss about 70 percent of their chonological feeds because, well, unless you’re a teenage girl, you’re not on it all the time and with 400 million regular visitors that’s a lot of lost content and potential squandered advertising messages.

The new feed will be ordered by machine learnings and a mix of ‘signals’ to determine the photo and video flow.

In Human that means there is a piece of code, an algorithm, that trawls our behaviour and calculates the likelihood of our interest in certain content, the relevance of posts, the relationship between two or more users and what they share in common.

There is a profit motive in play here to get us to spend more time on the app so the machine can serve more ads. It’s understandable but will it work?

You would have thought Instagram would base its non-chron decision on at least some input from users.

E.g. Do you:

a.want Instagram to pre-judge the content we think you’ll like?

b.serve you what your friends and followers want you to see?

But no, all the official blog, presumably not written by a machine, will tell us  is “to improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.”

The key here is the ‘we believe you will care about the most‘ and to coin my brilliant grandfather, ‘I may not know a lot about art, but I know what I like.’

Anyone who has tried and failed to get traction with a message through social media will know that nuance is everything and it’s much easier to turn off than on.

The wisdom of crowds is a powerful thing, peer pressure, collective sensibility; it’s the reason there aren’t more people picking their noses in public.

So why then is Instagram not picking our brains by engaging us in a, you know, conversation to ask us how we think our social experience could be improved?

They’re doing it to keep us engaged longer so they can squirt more advertising messages into our soon-not-to-be-so-live Instagram feeds.

The risk is that pre-curating our social content will have the opposite effect on engagement and will drive it down, especially in the youth market who can spot a faker from a thousand emojis. Then the dad-dancing Facebook audience overspills into Instagram, clears the room so that all you’ve got left is a 45-year-old MAMIL hand-jiving around a chair, with a robot to Keane.

I’ll leave the last word to a Tumblr blogger, called Maribellum:

Guys, they’re gonna Facebook the shit out of the chronology on Instagram. When will they learn this system is so unnecessary?!? After this there will be no point in posting on Instagram just like there’s no point to Facebook.” #InstagramDon’tBeStupid


9 Mar 2016

Is it ‘time to die’ for print?

Last week’s launch of a print-only newspaper excited journalists – but is it sustainable in a digitised consumer world? When I started my newspaper career in the late nineties ‘digital’ was called ‘the bloody internet’. “Forget about the bloody internet,” my ink-stained tabloid boss would argue, before resting his case on some surreal, qualitative Hollywood […]